This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us, The Road, Children of Men, and The Walking Dead.
Recently we’ve become very enamored with the apocalypse. Several big budget summer movies have been about one post-apocalyptic world or another. Zombies are shuffling across every single form of media. From natural disasters to global plagues to nuclear war and back again, from one end of the world scenario to the other, we as an audience eat it up. We find something fascinating about the end of the world as we know it and in what will come afterwards.
In all of these post-apocalyptic stories — zombie stories in particular — the human race always manages to survive. It may be a meager form of survival. It may be nasty, brutish, and short. Even with the population culled a bit, there are always a few humans still living. Likewise in post-apocalyptic fiction, the major themes always seem to concern survival on one level or another. There is always this lingering hope of the survivors being able to rebuild or at least build something new — a belief that despite this world ending tragedy, the human race will live on. The Last of Us, though, seems to take a different view of the apocalypse.
The fantasy of a post-apocalyptic setting generally begins with a vision of a simpler world. These stories reduce society back to its ancestral days when the only worries were survival and propagation of the species. You only had to worry about your tribe and those than might harm them. The disaster that it takes to get there is horrifying and the world that exists is called apocalyptic for a reason, but in the face of an increasing complex and intricately dangerous world or one that seems to be teetering on collapse anyway, the fiction can seem like a refuge. Again, the central idea espoused by this type of fiction is that even in the worst of times humanity will survive and people will endure.
One of the seemingly most depressing and least life affirming pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction of recent years is probably Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is a metaphoric struggle of light not going out in the darkness and keeping a moral center in an amoral world filled with destruction and death. The father in the novel dies when he develops sepsis following a gunshot wound, and his son is left all alone. Yet even The Road offers a hope in its ending, suggesting that there is still humanity and empathy in the world and that there is a possibility that both can flourish. A woman comes along and offers the boy refuge and to become a part of her family. The Last of Us crushes that final hope and as a consequence makes the entire experience of a post-apocalyptic setting seem more like as exercise in extinction.
This game is a rather bizarre oddity when compared to the rest of post-apocalyptic fiction. Even when held up against Romero’s original zombie films — Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead (perhaps its closest analogs) — the game’s ending is downright nihilistic. Those films issued statements about humanity but only focused on a small group of survivors in a single location. There may as well have been no outside world that existed outside the spaces occupied by the characters in those films. However,as much as The Last of Us wants to be a narrative that is tightly focused on a human relationship, by necessity it is more about the world at large and its ultimate fate. In other words, The Last of Us has a wider scope and its implications reach further than many pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction. In other forms of this fiction a group of people is killed. In this story, a species is eradicated. The Last of Us almost systematically eliminates the possibility of survival or even the hope of building a society that makes surviving worthwhile. In the beginning, Joel is beset by a military that is willing to kill anyone in the name of survival, even a young girl, and it all just goes downhill from there.
The game sets up a conflict between an evil empire and a rebel alliance, but the game soon drops that conceit. Once outside Boston, we learn that both groups of surviving humans are near death and their conflict ultimately doesn’t matter to anyone outside their own small pockets of control. Twenty years later and we find that Boston is barely holding together. It still stands, but with everyone killing each other over minor disputes, terrorist bombings are common and the city’s military loses entire contingents when going on patrols. One has to wonder how much time this conclave of humans has left. We see later that the military been driven out of Pittsburgh, left the University of Eastern Colorado, and has abandoned Salt Lake City. The situation of official military forces and the government that they represent are dire at best and possibly order is really no longer existent. The same is true of the group called the Fireflies. In Salt Lake City, they admit that they are on their last legs either due to deaths and desertions. They represent the situation of the most widespread surviving human organizations and their cohesiveness is dissolving.
Other characters also represent this loss of community.
Bill, for example, has isolated himself in his small town and has created an elaborate system to ensure survival. He has become a slave to his isolation. He lost his partner and is now alone. Javy Gwaltney explains Bill’s isolation best in a post at Medium Difficulty:
Bill’s fate is less ambiguous. He will die, eventually. First, the last bit of spirit will leave him, and he’ll become nothing more than a servant to the very routines he created to serve him: they will become his reason for living, not things designed to keep himself alive. And then, of course, he’ll physically die. Maybe he’ll get bitten or fall victim to a horde of bandits that come across his town. Perhaps it ends with a lot of whiskey and tears and a shotgun barrel in the mouth. Regardless, Bill will become an absence himself and, like all the others, leave behind evidence that someone once lived there.
The city hunters in Pittsburgh have doomed themselves as a community long term. Should their society last, if they don’t run out of supplies or kill each other first, they will all die out and have no heirs. They kill women, children, and anyone that is too weak to contribute to survival in the short term.
The Cordyceps fungus almost seems like an afterthought in this fiction that constantly speaks of community dissolution, something that the world/nature/god/fate brought forth as a catalyst to first destabilize society and to later finish off any survivors of that destabilization. Without gas masks, the spores in the air are enough to infect and kill, and following zombie logic, a single bite from any infected source is also enough to do the same. A group found in a drainage pipes that have fallen to the fungus simply fell victim to “one open door.” One simple mistake in The Last of Us and the world ends.
And the cannibals, in terms of an example of a species destroying itself from within, speak for themselves. Going out of their way to hunt humans for food brings the human race closer to extinction with each day that they extend their own lives. They are the last in a long line of groups and events that justify why Joel steps in and dooms the world to the Cordyceps and saves Ellie. He has no reason to. The game has not shown us any evidence that this world or the people in it are worth saving. Or even capable of being saved.
And that’s really the crux of it. Forgetting the question of whether or not it is worth saving, is the world in The Last of Us even capable of being saved? We’ve seen what the world has devolved into, and the idea that a vaccine would change anything is a pipe dream. The form of humanity on display is fundamentally broken and the Cordyceps are only the catalyst for a social disaster. People seem more than willing to destroy one another with impunity in this fictional world. They don’t want a cure. They want to survive.
Here is a work of post-apocalyptic fiction that specifically sets out to doom humanity. From the outset, we are given the role of a character that would doom the world for the sake of vengeance. Then, it sends him on a journey showing him little to no hope for the future, one in which he constantly wishes for the days of his past. Finally, when it comes time, he acts on the desires catalyzed by those memories and saves Ellie in the place of his daughter, Sarah, someone that he failed all those years ago.
The Last of Us gets compared to The Road a lot, but in this particular case, I think a better comparison might be made (at least in terms of plot) to another post-apocalyptic novel turned pretty good movie, Children of Men. In Children of Men, everyone has inexplicably become infertile, ensuring the slow demise of the human race. But there is hope. A single woman has become pregnant, and Clive Owen’s character has to shepherd her out of England to a group of scientists in search of a cure. The plot of The Last of Us and Children of Men are very similar right down to a terrorist bomb going off in the middle of a town at the beginning, but the end (and consequently the fate of the world) are represented very differently.
Whereas Children of Men maintains a very straightforward narrative, and places Clive Owen’s character in the metaphorical persona of Moses by guiding this woman to a place of refuge on the boat belonging to the researchers, Joel in The Last of Us kills every Firefly in his way in order to rescue Ellie and destroy any minute shred of hope of a cure being found. In this moment, The Last of Us represents the antithesis of hope.
The Fireflies were on their last legs, and the rest of humanity seems to have given up on a cure. There is, then, no Hollywood-style ending in which everything gets neatly solved and tied up in a little bow. Ellie knows Joel lied to her, but she has to accept it. There’s nothing left in her to fight him. There’s nothing really left to fight for. At the very least, Joel didn’t lie to her about the future of humanity. It’s as screwed up as he says it was.
The only light, if there is one, is illusory at best. Tommy’s hydroelectric dam is presented as a safe haven and the hope for the human race that most post-apocalyptic fiction typically provides. However, it won’t last. After all, could the citizens of Tommy’s town defend that town any better than the military defended the cities? What about the other group in the well fortified drainage tunnels? A single open door brings ruin. The infection still exists and will continue to spread. Other survivalists and bandits still exist and will continue to attack the rich settlement like barbarians at the gates of Rome. Survival will become a war of attrition, and based on everything that the game has shown us about how this world works, that seems a losing battle.
And then there’s always the possibility that a lone grizzled 50-year-old will come in and methodically shiv every last one of you.
The Last of Us stands out to me as a work that is uncompromising in its dedication towards presenting the slow eradication of humanity — better even than most zombie games. The Walking Dead ends as nihilistically as its narrative could. In the game’s final scene, The Walking Dead‘s little girl in distress, Clementine, finds herself alone in a field with two unknown people who have just spotted her. Fade to black. Yet, the story’s climax ends on Lee’s final words to her. She is to live on, endure, and remember everything that he taught her about being a good person. It’s an ending that still suggests hope, despite trials still to be overcome. In Fallout, you see people building a semblance of a life long after the bombs fell. Faced with possible extinction humanity survives both inside and outside the vaults. The Last of Us denies us our similar fantasy of the power of endurance. Joel sacrifices long term health for short term happiness. And yet short term anything seems to be the best anyone could ever hope for in this world.